For many years I have been teaching Cynefin as a foundational framework in complexity and participatory leadership workshops and retreats. For me it’s the best and most accessible way to explain the differences between complex problems and other kinds of problems and why we need to make complexity-based interventions in complex systems.
And while there are great ways to start learning about ontology in a lecture format, or using te examples of a children’s birthday party, I’m rather inclined to playing games as a way of understanding different types of systems before we do any teaching at all. Especially when you are teaching Cynefin by referring to constraints, games are super useful because a game is really just a constrained system.
My go to games involve movement and various challenges inspired by theatre exercises, and I’ve documented them before. This morning I needed to create a new suite of games for a context in which free movement was itself constrained (two participants in wheelchairs and a room that was not big enough for good and open movement.) I went to my arsenal of improvisation games and came up with these three games. We did these in groups of about 6-7 people.
- In your group, recite the English alphabet in order one letter at a time. Go around the circle, with each person saying one letter at a time.
- In your group, this time you will construct a 26 word story by each person contributing a word that starts with the next letter in the alphabet. Go in order around the circle, one word from each person. The theme of the story is “Our journey to the retreat centre.”
- In your group you have 3 minutes to tell a one word story about a mythical and legendary community event. Each person contributes one word at a time and you go clockwise around the circle. I will let you know when you have 30 seconds left to wrap up your story.
You can see that these three games map on to the Obvious, Complicated and Complex domains of Cynefin and although they are variations of the same process, the way we use constraints is what dictates the nature of the game.
In the first game, there is a rule: recite the alphabet in order, one person at a time. There is no room for creativity and in fact a best practice – singing The Alphabet Song – help you to do it. If anyone in the group doesn’t know the alphabet, it’s easy enough to google it and show them so they don’t lose their place.
In the second game, there was more latitude for participants to ad something, but they were still constrained by the alphabet scheme and the rule of one word at a time, going in a circle. Again, expertise helps here, as people can remind others that they skipped a letter for example, but increasingly the story is emergent and there is more unpredictability in the exercise. It’s also worth pointing out how people game the system by schoosing words that fit the rules rather than words that contribute to the story. The rules are far more influential constraints than the purpose of the exercise. This leads to all kinds of discussion about why it’s easy in large system to justify your work by just doing your part rather than by what you added to the whole. This is a good example of governing constraints.
In the third game we free the participants from all constraints except one word at a time, in a circle. The theme of the story becomes more important, because word choice is ENABLED by the theme which constraints options. Enabling constraints are at play, and I offered people a couple of heuristics from the improve world in order to hep them if they were stuck:
- Accept the offer and be changed by it
- Make your partner look good by building on the offer
- Don’t be afraid to fail
One word at a time stories can sometimes be very powerful and moving as they emerge from people co-creating something together. You can see how small changes cause the story to go in a radically different direction and participants can often feel their desire to control the narrative dashed on the rocks of different offers. With fewer GOVERNING constraints in place, people feel freer to make mistakes and fail, especially knowing that others may be waiting to work with their material anyway.
So there you go: a new way to experientially learn ontology before diving into Cynefin to explain and make sense of what we just did.